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Communicating complexity doesn’t need to be complicated

Ever observed a frontline worker highly engaged by a risk management manual during their lunch break? Ever witnessed a room full of people thrilled out of their brains by a 500-slide PowerPoint presentation on compliance?

It’s tough enough piquing people’s interest with complex content, let alone actually getting them engaged enough for it to make a difference. And that’s the challenge when it comes to communicating a subject as inherently complex, yet important, as governance, compliance, and risk.

Complexity isn’t the problem

The ability to take complex ideas, messages, processes, policies and strategies, and developing them into more engaging experiences and communication is fast becoming an indispensable skill. Yet too often complexity is treated as an exercise in elimination.

The world is complex. Humans are complex. Life is complex. Work is complex. We deal with complexity daily. It’s naive to think we should — or can — resolve complexity by removing detail. That’s just dumbing it down; robbing the richness that makes it interesting and stripping the features that make it useful.

Heck, simplifying complexity isn’t even the real problem we should be trying to solve.

The objective should be attention, engagement, and influence — making a difference. And the barrier to making things interesting, engaging, enjoyable, influential, inspiring, informative and clear isn’t actually complexity...

It’s confusion.

Simple, not simpler

Fortunately, complexity doesn’t need to be confusing. Complexity can certainly be engaging.

A Google search shows a single input box while concealing algorithms that tear through 4.74 billion pages to find and filter results in less time than it takes to blink. Hidden within the unassuming exterior of an iPhone lies the ability to connect with the world. The theory of relativity — as elegant and memorable as E=mc2.

From iPhones to navigating the Metro, from Google searches to our brains, we constantly underestimate the sheer complexity of things when they’re well designed. It’s easy to assume that everything that seems simple is simple because the successful resolution of complexity renders it invisible.

Communicating complexity isn’t a matter of hacking out the bits that are tough to deal with. It’s resolving them so you don’t even notice they’re there. Make things understandable and they’ll seem simple. Make things seem simple, and we remove one of the biggest barriers to engagement.

Begin with comprehension

Begin by understanding the content. It’s appallingly obvious-sounding, yet far too frequently skipped. We have a general idea of the information, right? We’ve been using this content for the past decade so it must be okay, right? It just needs a little ... zhuzhing, right?

Wrong! Cutting through complexity means taking the time to immerse in the source material and understanding it implicitly. No assumptions. No shortcuts. No hiding old cracks behind new wallpaper.

Follow with context

Once we understand what we’ve got, we can ask ourselves why we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing. Why does it exist? Who’s it for? What purpose does it serve? What problem does it solve? What are the expectations? All these questions (and more) are necessary.

Comprehension is highly contextual. Someone’s simplicity is someone else’s complexity. We need to consider what simplicity means to our intended recipient.

Sift for relevance

Once we understand the context, then we can sift for relevance. What’s necessary, and what’s the simplest way we can say or show the content? What details really matter? What will our intended audience relate to? What helps us solve the problem?

Let’s strip it right back to basics. Remove the unnecessary; the buzzwords, the abstract language, the corporate jargon, and the redundancies. But, caution! Oversimplification can just as easily lead to confusion as too much extraneous detail.

Quite counter-intuitively, simplicity can sometimes be better achieved through addition. As well as asking what can be removed, let’s also ask what can be added to improve comprehension.

Make it for humans

Let’s not forget our purpose is to connect the content with people.

Empathy helps us establish context and relevance. Curiosity inspires learning. Emotions drive our choices at the most basic level. Storytelling establishes a deeper connection. Conversations help us improve future iterations. If we were to include this garnish earlier, we’d only risk adding unnecessary confusion without purpose.

Reduce our hefty cognitive burden

It’s estimated that we make around 35,000 conscious choices every day, each one expending precious mental energy. Make too many decisions in too short a timeframe and our decision-making abilities dramatically decrease.

So, we begin by limiting the choices. This doesn’t necessarily mean removing all the options, but we can break them down and deliver them in more manageable blocks.

Next, we need clear and unambiguous language when comprehension matters most. Let’s cull the jargon when communication extends beyond a niche audience. We also need to avoid words with multiple interpretations and be wary of implicature.

Switching from verbal to visual, we can also simplify lengthy and complex content using imagery. Our brain processes images around 60,000 times faster than text, and that’s one heck of a way to reduce cognitive load.

Establish a ruthless order

Without dropping too deep into theory (unnecessary complexity), there are principles that influence how we make sense of things visually.

Gestalt theory identifies our tendency to group elements that are similar, connected, close, enclosed together, continuing or moving in the same direction, or parallel to each other. Our minds also tend to complete unfinished objects or patterns.

We can also make it easier to process information through a hierarchy. Scale, colour, and weight all help convey an order of importance. Breaking content into weighted headlines, subheadings and body copy increases comprehension.

A sequence is important too, either prioritising the most important or attention-seizing features or beginning with the basics and establishing the fundamentals before going deeper.

Remember: recognition over recall

We find it easier to recognise things we’ve previously experienced rather than recalling specific information from memory. Therefore, the simplest systems don’t require us to remember specific procedures or processes; they use familiar signals and cues to guide us to the desired outcome.

About the Author

Dougal Jackson is a co-founder of Jaxzyn, an employee experience company working with leaders of Fortune 500 and ASX listed companies. He is a co-author of How to Speak Human (Wiley, 2018). Find out more at and

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